America is in the midst of the greatest civil rights movement seen since the 1960s. Americans are demanding reform of our public-safety system to advance racial justice, fairness and better outcomes. Recent polling shows that 90% of King County residents want to increase oversight and accountability for law enforcement. Seventy percent support shifting some resources from police to social services. There is, in short, an unprecedented desire to re-envision our public-safety system for safer communities, better outcomes and more justice.
But how do we accomplish it? An essential step in making reforms is to remove barriers to reform. The King County Charter Review Commission, a diverse group of King County residents from across the political spectrum, studied these issues for nearly two years. Last year, they overwhelmingly recommended that we return the sheriff to an appointed — instead of elected — position. Charter Amendment 5 on the November ballot would make this change, reinstating the approach used in King County from 1969-1996.
Why did they make this recommendation, and why should you vote to approve it this fall?
Here are five reasons to approve Charter Amendment 5.
First, appointment is the contemporary approach to choosing a top law enforcement officer. Appointing the sheriff would allow for nationwide recruitment of the best candidate for the job. Today, under our election system, candidates must reside in King County, and therefore we limit who may run. The mayors and councils of all 39 King County cities choose their local chief by appointment — including the chiefs in cities served by the King County Sheriff. None of these chiefs is elected.
Second, appointing the sheriff takes politics out of the driver’s seat. Electing a sheriff limits the choice to someone willing to raise money, run for office every four years and be a politician. Many highly qualified law enforcement professionals reasonably refuse to do this. The public is shortchanged as a result. An appointed-sheriff model reduces politics and disruption in the office, something we have seen too much of in recent years.
Third, civilian oversight of law enforcement reduces barriers and facilitates the ability to advance reforms. Critically, appointing the sheriff will more closely integrate our law enforcement system with other county services, facilitating the contemporary public-safety system we need by increasing coordination. For example, an appointed sheriff would serve in the cabinet with other department leaders and be able to more effectively help King County advance system improvements that increasingly call for tailored responses to public-safety challenges that are better suited to the need. As a separately elected department leader, there is inherently less cohesiveness and integration with other county services.
Our experience shows that a separately-elected sheriff presents a real barrier to advancing reforms. A recent report from the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight noted that dozens of recommended reforms to our sheriff’s office were left to “die on the vine.” The King County Executive and county council would ensure that these reforms are advanced, not ignored.
Fourth, an appointed sheriff model increases transparency and accountability. It is admittedly counterintuitive that accountability is increased by having indirect, rather than direct electoral oversight. However, under Charter Amendment 5, the county executive and county council would work in partnership with a Community Advisory Committee to appoint and confirm the sheriff. The county executive would make the appointment, while the council confirms. The advisory committee would include representatives of King County’s diverse communities, civil rights leaders, contract cities, unincorporated communities and law enforcement. If a change in leadership were required due to incompetence or misconduct, it could be made promptly, not years later with the uncertainties and ugliness of a political campaign.
Fifth, the Community Advisory Committee would give voice to youth, immigrants, refugees, the poor and others who cannot vote, or who experience substantial barriers to voting. Today, these King County residents have little or no voice in choosing the sheriff; they deserve one. The appointment model also strengthens the input of our unincorporated residents and those living in smaller cities served by the sheriff. Today, these residents are outnumbered at the ballot box by voters not directly served by the sheriff.
This November, voters can advance the promise of reform by approving Charter Amendment 5. The League of Women Voters, faith-community leaders, the ACLU People Power Police Accountability Working Group and King County Democrats all support a return to an appointed Sheriff. Taking politics out of the selection of our sheriff and removing barriers to reform is the right thing to do, and now is the right time to do it.